Some places can be built up so much in your mind before you go that they don’t meet your expectations. Not so with Israel. There is something that will excite everyone from any religious background and any kind of interest — food, culture, history, nature, arts, architecture, or any other interest you might have.
Israel has been on our travel list for many years. Originally, we planned on renting a car and driving through the whole country. It’s about the size of New Jersey. We even had the whole trip planned out 3 years ago, but one of us (Sue) ended up having an opportunity to go to Antarctica instead.
This time around, we decided that going with a tour group would be a better idea. As we started our research, we came across an interview with the owner of Mejdi Tours — a company that specializes in dual narrative experiences. Seeing Israel from the perspectives of both the Israelis and Palestinians was important to us.
During our 2 weeks in Israel, we went to Jerusalem, Akko, Haifa, the Golan Heights, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and Tiberias, Caesarea Maritima, Ramallah, Masada, the Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv. We could write extensively about all these places, but we will try to narrow this down to the top 12 highlights.
Marvel At Views Of Old Jerusalem
If we could only go to one place in Israel, it would be Jerusalem. We spent 6 nights in Jerusalem just 100 meters from the gates of the Old City. From our hotel room in East Jerusalem, we could see the sun setting over the Old City and the Dome of the Rock.
We wandered the streets (Arab, Jewish, Armenian, Christian Quarters) and the Via Dolorosa and saw the splendor of the Temple Mount. The views of Old Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives took our breath away. We had the opportunity to see the Western (Wailing) Wall from the top and through the tunnels underneath.
A visit to Yad Vashem is a must-do in Jerusalem if you want to understand some of the history and forces that led to the creation of Israel. It has been a place that we wanted to spend time at not only to pay tribute to the lives lost but also to acknowledge the Righteous Among the Nations who risk their lives to save Jews. The Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem had us in tears. There is much more to do in Jerusalem — the Israeli Museum, Yehuda Mahane Market, the City of David, food tours, and many other things.
If you only have a short amount of time in Israel, you can base yourself in Jerusalem and take day trips to Bethlehem, Masada, and Tel Aviv.
Go To The Birthplace Of Jesus
Situated in the West Bank and in Palestinian territory, Bethlehem is the biblical birthplace of Jesus. The grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born is inside the 6th-century Church of Nativity. Many people go to Bethlehem to see the murals on the separation wall (it encloses the occupied territory where Palestinians live) and Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel and Museum.
Seeing both is important for understanding the conflict and the experience of Palestinians. In addition, we went to the Aida Refugee Camp with our Palestinian guide (which can only be done with a guide).
Wander Among The Ruins
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Masada is historically important both for ancient Jewish history and modern Zionism. An ancient fortification and palace built during Herodian times, Masada has breathtaking views of the desert and was the site of a famous resistance in A.D. 73 against the Romans.
You can either hike up the mountain or take a cable car. Go early in the morning if you want to hike.
3. The Dead Sea
Float In The Salty Waters
Floating in the Dead Sea is a unique experience. It is bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel to the west (the name West Bank comes from its location on the West Bank of the Jordan River, which is a tributary of the Dead Sea). The Jordan River is important to many Christian pilgrims.
Walk The Crusaders’ Footsteps
Akko, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the oldest port cities in the world. Built by the Crusaders, it is filled with tunnels, citadels, mosques, and Turkish baths — all influenced by the Romans, Ottomans, Mamelukes, Byzantines, and the British. Take time to lose yourself in the maze that is the souk. We did not have time to see the Bahai Gardens in Akko and regret it.
It is very easy to catch the train from Tel Aviv or Haifa to Akko. It takes about 15 minutes to walk to the old city from the station. Make sure to get a map at the visitors center — you will need it.
Experience The Beautiful Bahai Gardens
Just an hour’s train ride from Tel Aviv, Haifa is an underappreciated stop in Israel. Home to the exquisite Bahai Gardens, Haifa also has the Stella Maris Monastery with the grotto of Elijah. You can also eat and shop at the German Colony at the foot of Mount Carmel. Near the train station is a wonderful mural of a peace train by the Broken Fingaz Crew, one of the most well-known street art collectives in Israel.
6. Caesarea Maritima
Admire King Herod’s Palace And More
Located halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, the port city of Caesarea Maritima was an engineering marvel built by King Herod on the Mediterranean coast. Today, it is a national archaeological park that is well-excavated and preserved. You will see the amphitheater, remains of a hippodrome, frescoes, pillars, an aqueduct, King Herod’s palace, and a museum.
You may want to join a tour or rent a car and drive yourself as it is not easy to get to Caesarea by public transport.
7. The Sea Of Galilee (Or Lake Tiberias)
Visit Nearby Mount Beatitudes
The Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias, is the second-lowest lake in the world. It is an important stop for Christian pilgrims to Israel. Nearby Mount Beatitudes is the site where Jesus was believed to have delivered the sermon on the mount. The Tomb of Maimonides, an important Jewish philosopher, and scholar in the Middle Ages, is in Tiberias.
See Basilica Of The Annunciation
Of religious significance to the Christians, the Basilica of the Annunciation is believed to be where the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and delivered the news of the birth of Jesus Christ. You will also find Joseph’s carpentry workshop in what is today St. Joseph’s Church located behind the basilica.
Visit Yasser Arafat’s Tomb Museum
Located just 10 miles from Jerusalem, Ramallah is the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority. We went to the Yasser Arafat Museum and Tomb in Ramallah. Largely occupied by Muslim Palestinians, this Central West Bank city is also the cultural capital with cafes and bars. We took a food tour with a local Palestinian blogger and sampled warm pitas, freshly made falafels, and wonderful kebabs and spices.
11. Tel Aviv
Enjoy The Culture
To be honest, since we are more interested in ancient history than modern, Tel Aviv was not the top city for us in Israel. That said, if you love modern skyscrapers, beautiful white sand beaches, and eclectic neighborhoods, Tel Aviv is the place to go. The city has more than 4,000 Bauhaus buildings, resulting in its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition, there are many historical sites related to the founding of Israel in Tel Aviv. We recommended going to Rothschild Boulevard and the Itzhak Rabin Memorial. At the memorial, you’ll have the opportunity to see a video about his assassination.
The Carmel Market is a lively place to eat and shop. If you love street art like us, go to the top level of the old Tel Aviv Bus Station to see murals by local artists. The Neve Zedek neighborhood is great for lunch and people-watching. In addition, there is a thriving LGBTQ community. Make sure to stop at Otello — they serve one of the best gelatos in Tel Aviv.
Find The Clock Tower
Meeting at the Clock Tower is the thing to do when visiting the Old City of Jaffa (in Tel Aviv). Wander the area and then head towards the beach. You will enjoy the Mediterranean ocean breezes as you climb to the top of Abrasha Park. Poke around the antique stores, craft shops, and the flea market. Duck into St. Peter’s Church for a cool respite.
- Decide whether you want to travel on your own in Israel or join a tour group. There are advantages to both.
- Trains are very efficient in Israel. The Rav-Kav card and phone app allow you to board all trains and buses.
- The express train from the airport to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is cheap and fast. Sundays Mornings are the first day of the work week and trains are crowded.
- Israeli businesses, government offices, and public transport shut down for the sabbath from sundown Friday until Saturday late afternoon.
- Israel has Gett, not Uber.
- Masada, the Dead Sea, and Caesarea are hot and sunny. Good walking shoes, sunscreen, hats, and water are essential.